World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


David Potter, The Victor's Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxx + 416. $24.95 (paper).


     David Potter examines not only the history of Greek and Roman sport, but also the meaning of sports in the modern day in light of its ancient precursors. Looking at everything from rules, equipment, fans, and stadium size to the economics underlying ancient sports, Potter's focus is on sport broadly defined. For Potter, sport is a window into the cultural and political ideals of a society, and throughout the work, Potter demonstrates the fundamental longing to see humans contend with one another to discover who is best, linking the modern world of sport with ancient Greece and Rome.

     The book is divided into five sections, three on Greece and two on Rome. The first section deals with the earliest incarnations of sport in the eastern Mediterranean. Potter is particularly concerned with the purpose of athletic events and the social status of its participants, as he attempts to locate how and why the Greek sporting tradition differed from its Mediterranean counterparts. Unlike sport in other ancient societies, where royal preference often determined the outcome of athletic events, in ancient Greece free men competed on an equal playing field to determine who possessed the greatest combination of strength and skill.

     Potter is at his best in his second section on Olympia and the Olympic games, as he effectively uses sport as a means of viewing the larger Greek culture and sense of identity. Drawing comparisons with modern sport, Potter notes how the success of athletes was tied to civic pride. Underscoring the lengthy and rigorous training undertaken by athletes, the huge audiences that athletic events drew, and the logistics involved in staging events, Potter conveys the centrality of sport to Greek life. Moreover, in highlighting the exclusivity of Greek sport and the values which were espoused through sport, Potter demonstrates how the Olympic Games and Greek sport in general helped shape what it meant to be Greek.

     In his third section on the world of the gymnasium, Potter cogently brings together his full range of sources, both literary and archeological, to reconstruct a world were sport was a defining feature of youth and civic life. He vividly describes the Greek world of state-sponsored athletic facilities, of intense social pressure for youth to participate in sport, and where vitality of the polis was intertwined with sports and military training.

     In part four, Potter turns his attention to Rome, and highlights the many ways in which Romans appropriated the Greek sporting tradition. He also reveals the uniquely Roman conception of sport, which is most apparent in his analysis of gladiatorial contests. For Potter these were more than mere entertainment; gladiatorial games provided a forum for Romans to confront and control the world around them. Gladiators often took on distinctive characters based on enemies of the Roman state, and other matches featured exotic beasts. Such contests demonstrated Roman authority over the political and natural world. The games also provided a dialogue between the individuals who sponsored events and the viewers, and as such, the games played a crucial political role in linking the Roman people to their leaders.

     In his final section, Potter fleshes out familiar themes such as the celebrity status of gladiators, the importance of sporting factions, and the role of female gladiators in Roman sport. At the same time, Potter challenges popular conceptions of Roman sport as depicted in the Russell Crowe movie "Gladiator" and the work of Edward Gibbon, disentangling sport from narratives of Roman decline and depravity and reassessing notions of death as a form of entertainment.

     Readers will find Potter's narrative both informative and relevant; in drawing parallels between ancient and modern sport, Potter references the World Cup, Major League Baseball, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Potter has taught a course titled "Ancient Sport" for the past twenty years, and he also clearly understands the world of modern sport, having served on a University of Michigan advisory board on intercollegiate athletics for the past five years. His book reflects this diverse set of experiences, and it is a rigorous academic work, with translations of primary sources throughout, yet still highly accessible to an undergraduate audience.

     The book is not without flaws. It lacks illustration, and even the eight pages of pictures in the center are not well incorporated into the discussion. Because many of the chapters explore similar themes, with titles like "Watching," "The Fans Experience," and "Crowd Noise," there is some repetition throughout the work. Additionally, the thematic chapters leave the reader unsure of the chronological development of events, especially in the sections on Rome. While these limitations should be taken into consideration, these are relatively minor shortcomings. The Victor's Crown is an engaging introductory text that will bring to life Greek and Roman sport for an undergraduate audience.

David Dry is a history instructor at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, NC. He can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use